COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s president fled the country early Wednesday, slipping away in the middle of the night just hours before stepping down amid a devastating economic crisis which caused severe shortages of food and fuel.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksahis wife and two bodyguards left on a Sri Lankan Air Force plane bound for the city of Malé, the capital of the Maldives, according to an immigration official who expressed on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Rajapaksa had agreed to resign under pressure. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said he will leave once a new government is in place.
The president’s departure follows months of protests that culminated on Saturday when protesters stormed his home and office as well as the official residence of his prime minister. The protests have all but dismantled his family’s political dynasty, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
On Wednesday morning, Sri Lankans continued to flock to the presidential palace. A growing line of people waited to enter the residence, many of whom had come from outside Colombo by public transport.
“What Rajapaksa did – fleeing the country – was a timid act,” said Bhasura Wickremesinghe, a 24-year-old marine electrical engineering student who came with friends. “I don’t celebrate. There’s no point in partying. We have nothing in this country at the moment.
He complained that Sri Lankan politics has been dominated for years by “old politicians” who all have to go. “Politics should be treated like a job – you should have qualifications that get you hired, not because of your last name,” he said, referring to the Rajapaksa family.
There was no end to the crisis in sight, and protesters vowed to occupy official buildings until key leaders left. For days people flocked to the presidential palace almost as if it were a tourist attraction – swim in the pool, marvel at the paintings, and lounge on the beds piled high with pillows. At one point they also burned down the Prime Minister’s private house.
At dawn, protesters took a break to sing as the Sri Lankan national anthem blared from loudspeakers. A few waved the flag.
Malik D’Silva, a 25-year-old protester who serves in the president’s office, said Rajapaksa “ruined this country and stole our money. He said he voted for Rajapaksa in 2019, believing his military background would keep the country safe after Islamic State-inspired bombings earlier this year killed more than 260 people.
Nearby, Sithara Sedaraliyanage, 28, and her 49-year-old mother carried black banners around their foreheads that read “Gota Go Home”, the protests’ rallying cry.
“We expected him to be behind bars – not escaping to a tropical island! What kind of justice is that? Sithara said. a president. We want some accountability.
The air force said in a statement that it had provided a plane for the president and his wife to fly to the Maldives with the approval of the Ministry of Defence. He said all immigration and customs laws were followed.
“It shows what happens to a leader who uses his power to the extreme,” said lawmaker Ranjith Madduma Bandara, a senior member of parliament’s main opposition party, United People’s Force.
Sri Lankan lawmakers have agreed to elect a new president next week but have struggled to decide on the composition of a new government to pull the bankrupt country out of economic and political collapse.
The new president will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024, and could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then need to be approved by parliament.
The current prime minister is to serve as president until a replacement is chosen – an arrangement that is sure to inflame protesters who want Wickremesinghe out immediately.
Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in office, and it is likely that Rajapaksa planned his escape while still enjoying constitutional immunity. A corruption case against him in his former role as defense chief was withdrawn when he was elected president in 2019.
Corruption and mismanagement have left the island nation saddled with debt and unable to pay for imports of basic necessities. Shortages have sown despair among the country’s 22 million people. Sri Lankans are skipping meals and queuing for hours trying to buy scarce fuel.
Until the latest crisis deepened, the Sri Lankan economy had grown and grown a comfortable middle class.
Sithara said people want new leaders who are young, educated and able to manage the economy.
“We don’t know who’s coming next, but hopefully they’ll do a better job of resolving the issues,” she said. “Sri Lanka was once a prosperous country.”
As a restaurant manager at a hotel in Colombo, she once had a stable income. But with no tourists, the hotel closed, she said. His mother, Manjula Sedaraliyanage, used to work in Kuwait but returned to Sri Lanka a few years ago after suffering a stroke. Now the drugs she needs daily have become harder to find and more expensive, Sithara said.
The political stalemate fueled the economic crisis as the absence of an alternative unity government threatened to delay the hoped-for bailout from the International Monetary Fund. In the meantime, the country is counting on help from neighboring India and China.
Protesters accuse the president and his associates of embezzling money from government coffers for years and the Rajapaksa administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family denied allegations of corruption, but Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to the collapse.
Associated Press Business writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.
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